They say you never miss the water until the well runs dry. Which may be true, but who are ‘they’ and why don’t they just use the tap like any normal person, or if thirsty just buy some Um Bongo? What are they, medieval peasants?
Of course, I’m joking – it’s just a figure of speech like “He who has rubber arms can’t lift a bag of spuds, but he’s a cracking bodypopper!” and “Stop touching that, it’s already bleeding”. In this case, it means people often take things for granted. And oh look, here’s a silly arse who did that coming along now: me.
To cut a long story short (because as you’ll soon realise, typing is literally and figuratively a right pain for me at the moment), a few weeks back I fell awkwardly on to some concrete and well and truly buggered up my right arm – which is my ‘doing’ arm, assuming I want to do whatever it is I’m doing with any level of accuracy and competence. Broken bone sticking out, an operation, pins in my wrist and everything.
This was all very unpleasant of course, but counterintuitively I feel I’ve got off quite lucky aside from the actual fall itself. A bit to the left and I could have hit my head on a wall instead, a nastier break and I could have been looking at having a steel plate in my arm, and without the brilliant swift work of the NHS I could have had a rampaging infection and ended up having to have my arm lopped off – or worse.
I’m merely in minor discomfort and inconvenienced for a bit as opposed to a life-changing (or ending) incident, and I’m grateful for that. But still, what I *do* have for the next fortnight, and have had for the last 3 weeks, is a sodding great cast on my arm and a lot of unexpected free time.
Usually, free time = gaming time. Whee! But then usually, I’m not wearing a concrete glove with nails in my wrist either. Although I can use my fingers, I can’t turn my wrist at all, I can’t raise my thumb up, I have limited strength in all the above because of my busted skelly parts, and I have to have my arm supported or it starts to ache pretty quickly.
Suffice to say, this does not make for the ideal gaming ‘stance’.
However, Love Island is on the telly and they stopped giving me morphine when I left hospital, so as no one should have to sit through that without access to powerful sedatives I obviously had to do something to adjust, and fast. Hence my somewhat eye-opening intro to accessibility in gaming.
We’ve all seen those controls on our console menus, computers and phones, after all – but how do they measure up when you’re relying on them?
My first attempt was just to fiddle with controller layouts via the PS4’s accessibility options that let you swap button placements, so any button can become any other button; the theory being you put the most used buttons near your strongest fingers. This can help, but it’s frustratingly limited – you can’t assign a button to act as a shift key so others can double up, or bind 2 buttons to 1 (this is apparently to avoid people giving themselves a fractional speed advantage by e.g. binding ‘aim’ and ‘shoot’ to the same button).
Whatever the reason, the upshot is you still need to have the same number of digits available to press the same number of things. Only now they’re also in a confusingly different order that doesn’t match on-screen prompts either.
PC-wise, keyboards are much better for shuffling which key does what, but on the flipside mice are far worse. To give you an idea of how this feels, try holding your mouse arm in the position you’d hold a can of drink or a mug. Then, turn it so you could use a mouse but keep your wrist still – i.e. do all the pivoting with your shoulder and elbow through 90 degrees.
Comfy? Unlikely. At best, you’ll look like someone doing half of the worst chicken impression ever. Trackpads are more usable, but fairly lousy for any gaming shenanigans much livelier than point & click adventures.
I did partially solve this by buying an upright mouse: basically, a mouse on its side with the optical bit stuck on what’s now the bottom. It means I can now at least use my computer to do stuff like write this article without entirely relying on my flailing left hand, but fine control with a busted wrist and a drainpipe bolted on to your forearm still isn’t easy.
Eventually, I settled on a combination of a new mini controller for the PS4 intended for the small hands of kids that meant I was stretching a lot less for buttons, and actually changing my play style in some games. Anything where I had to hold down a trigger was off the menu, so auto rifles in shooters were swapped for single shot weapons. As I don’t have pedals, driving games were right out. And vibration? Unless you like real bad cramp on a skeletal scale, I’d turn that off too.
(As an aside, one of the strangest sensations I’ve had was when I tried using an electric toothbrush in my right hand – the vibes went straight through the pins into my bones and made me make an involuntary “Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnggg” noise, like I was a massive buzzer.)
The best options though without needing to buy new (and potentially expensive) kit – that I’m hugely appreciative of – were Nintendo and mobile. Mario Kart, for example, has auto drive features intended mainly to help kids get to grips with a game before mastering manual controls. But they’re an absolute boon for the knackered of limb too. Well-implemented motion controls were also winners here – the twitchiness of Doom would be unplayable on a PS4 for me just now, but with the JoyCons on the Switch it was no problem. I even managed OK with Mario Tennis.
I’d always (daftly) assumed it was simplicity and intuitiveness that gave the Wii such cross-generational appeal. But now I appreciate it’s not just that – being able to aim a Wiimote (or now, a JoyCon) using your whole arm is so much easier than a joypad thumbstick if you’ve got limited movement range in your hands.
Single touch or limited swipe games on my phone have also scratched my gaming itch without requiring painful contortions – and they show how mobile has really become a unique platform of its own because of the control options developers have had to adapt to and develop. There are the obvious big hitters like Monument Valley or Alto’s Odyssey, but even fairly sophisticated platformers such as Oddmar can be played one-handed.
The biggest praise must go to Microsoft though, and their new adaptive controller. It’s not cheap, and granted I haven’t used it and given I’ll be cast free in a few weeks I won’t need to. But the fact it even exists is frankly ruddy great – even my brief period of limited limb incarceration has made me realise how lucky most of us are, and appreciative of flexibility in control schemes.
Because the truth is, my need for accessibility tech is laughably short-lived, and the chances are that’ll be the same for most people reading this if they ever find themselves in a similar situation. For a lot of people though they’ve either always needed more options, or they haven’t got off as lightly as I did and will have to make permanent changes.
Assuming we’re all cool with gaming being as open and inclusive a hobby as possible – and if you’re not, please proceed at your earliest convenience to repeatedly kick yourself up the backside for an indefinite period – then it’s these people we need to listen to.
Accidents and personal situations aside, none of us are getting any younger either: in 10 or 20 years time I can’t see why I would have gone off gaming, but with another decade or two’s wear and tear I might have to take stuff like RSI or carpal tunnel a lot more seriously. Unless you’ve got a magic mouldering portrait in your attic, decrepitidy awaits us all.
So while there’s more to do, it’s great to see companies really starting to think about this and look at different people’s needs to make gaming as inclusive as possible. Only some of us may need a little help – and in some cases only for a bit – but we all benefit from having more people able to enjoy gaming, and it may help all of us enjoy gaming for longer. We might even not only live to see Half-Life 3, but be able to play it!
(While you’re waiting for old age and/or a horrible accident, if you have a few quid to spare why not think about bunging it the way of Special Effect? They’re a fab charity who help people with physical disabilities get into, or back into, gaming. Ta!)
PLEASE... SEND AN EMAIL TO THE DIGITISER FRIDAY LETTERS PAGE